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ERISA Violations Due to Restrictive Claim Guidelines

By: Erin M. Hussey, Esq.

Whenever a self-funded health plan covers mental health/substance use disorder (“MH/SUD”) benefits, we review the plan to assess whether these benefits are covered in parity with medical/surgical benefits in order to ensure compliance with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (“MHPAEA”). A recent case, however, has added another layer to compliance when it comes to covering MH/SUD benefits. 

In Wit v. United Behavioral Health, 2019 WL 1033730 (N.D. Cal. 2019), class actions were brought against an insurer by plaintiffs who were “at all relevant times a beneficiary of an ERISA-governed health benefit plan” administered by the insurer. In the capacity of administering MH/SUD benefits, the insurer had developed “Level of Care Guidelines and Coverage Determination Guidelines (collectively, “Guidelines”) that it uses for making coverage determinations” of MH/SUD benefits. Those Guidelines were the main issue in this case as well as how they were utilized to adjudicate claims.

Interestingly enough, the plaintiffs' claims against the insurer did not include a violation of the MHPAEA. Instead, the plaintiffs asserted two ERISA claims: (1) breach of fiduciary duty and (2) arbitrary and capricious denial of benefits. The Plaintiffs argued that the insurer breached its fiduciary duty by:

“1) developing guidelines for making coverage determinations that are far more restrictive than those that are generally accepted even though Plaintiffs’ health insurance plans provide for coverage of treatment that is consistent with generally accepted standards of care, and 2) prioritizing cost savings over members’ interests.”

The plaintiffs also argued that the insurer improperly adjudicated and denied claims because of the overly restrictive Guidelines, and the use of those Guidelines was arbitrary and capricious.

The court ruled that the insurer breached their ERISA fiduciary duty and that the actions were an arbitrary and capricious denial of benefits, and concluded that the insurer’s Guidelines were overly restrictive and not in line with accepted standards of care. The court emphasized that the insurer placed “an excessive emphasis on addressing acute symptoms and stabilizing crises while ignoring the effective treatment of members’ underlying conditions.”

This case is a reminder that the claim guidelines utilized and the process of adjudicating and denying claims must be held to certain standards to ensure ERISA compliance when administering MH/SUD benefits.